Former president Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs are possibly two of the least loved facets of 20th century American history, and according to a former adviser, a link between the two might make them even more unpopular.
For years, many have suspected that the Nixon administration’s “dirty tricks” against its rivals exposed in Watergate were also present in the War on Drugs. There was, however, scant evidence of these claims being true. Now, a 1994 interview is being shared with the public for the first time in a Harper magazine piece called “Legalize It All.”
Dan Baum, the reporter behind the article, writes that two decades ago he was able to track down John Ehrlichman — who was involved in Watergate and was once Richard’s domestic policy adviser — and ask him about the War on Drugs. More specifically: What was the endgame of the Nixon administration?
Baum writes that the former Nixon-affiliated official told him something shocking about the War on Drugs. Richard’s team did, in fact, develop it as a way to target two communities that they couldn’t seem to get rid of: African-Americans and anti-war protesters.
“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The damning comment from the former Nixon employee — should you choose to believe it — confirms what many have suspected all along: the War on Drugs had an ulterior motive. In Nixon’s case, that meant giving him a tool to squash anti-war and black liberation movements that were becoming troublesome for him.
The implications of this revelation are staggering, especially for African-Americans. Black men are more likely to be jailed by Nixon’s War on Drugs than any other group. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a majority of 38.4 percent of men in prison for drug violations are black. That’s of a total of 208,000, or 15 percent of the entire prison population of more than 1.2 million.
While both Richard and the War on Drugs are decidedly unpopular, their trajectories have been quite contrary.
For Nixon, support plummeted in 1973, when his involvement in the Watergate scandal became irrevocably exposed. Richard’s approval rating hit its all-time low of just above 20 percent before he resigned in 1974 — down from his all-time high of 67 percent a year earlier, according to Gallup.
On the other hand, the War on Drugs had a much less sudden shift in public opinion. Like Nixon, though, its reputation has changed for the worse. A majority of 67 percent now believe providing treatment to users is better than prosecuting them. Furthermore, support for marijuana legalization has more than quadrupled from 13 percent in 1910 to 57 percent in 2014, reported Pew Research Center.
Richard surely would not have approved. It was with Nixon’s speech on June 18, 1971, that he first kicked off the popularization of the term “The War on Drugs” by calling it “Public Enemy No. 1.”
“Public Enemy No. 1 is drug abuse. In order to fight this enemy it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.”
Do you think Richard Nixon used the War on Drugs to unjustly pursue anti-war protesters and African-Americans?
[Image via Ian Waldie/Getty Images]